Vaccination debate splits along party lines

And candidates can't resist weighing in

WASHINGTON, D.C. - We’re right in the middle of another flu season, and that means it’s time for the country’s annual debate on the merits of vaccinations.

This year the issue has boiled over following an outbreak of measles linked to people who were infected while visiting Disneyland. During January, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 102 cases of measles reported in 14 states, most of them stemming from the theme park outbreak.

The results have left many people in the country wondering whether parents anywhere should have the right to choose whether their kids get vaccinated against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella? In every state, except Mississippi and West Virginia, parents can choose not to have their children vaccinated based on religious beliefs, and in 20 states they can opt out based on philosophical beliefs.

It’s rare to find an issue that doesn’t get tangled up in politics, and vaccinations are no exception. You guessed it, the choice vs. no choice debate falls largely along party lines.

More Republicans than Democrats believe parents should be allowed to choose whether their kids are vaccinated, according to a Pew Research Center study released Monday. Actually, since 2009 the percentage of self-identifying Democrats who believe vaccines should be required has grown from 71 percent to 76 percent, while the percentage of Republicans believing that has gone in the complete opposite direction, decreasing from 71 to 65 percent.

The question comes down to this: Should more weight be given to parents’ freedom of choice or to scientific proof of the benefits of vaccinations?

Recently a number of Republican politicians -- and likely presidential hopefuls -- voiced their support of the right to choose.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told reporters Monday that while vaccines are an important part of public health, "I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well. So that's the balance that the government has to decide."

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a physician, went even farther than Christie on Monday saying on CNBC that not only is he pro-freedom of choice for vaccinations, but he also gave weight to the argument that vaccines can cause health defects.

“I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” Paul said. “I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they're a good thing. But I think the parents should have some input."

The idea that vaccines might cause health defects reached a high point (or maybe it should be described as a low point) back in 1998 following a now-debunked study in The Lancet that found that the Measels-Mumps-Rubella vaccination lead to an increase of autism in children. Scientific study after scientific study since then has proved that theory wrong.

In contrast to what many Republican leaders are saying, some Democratic politicians have made it clear that parents shouldn’t have the choice to ignore scientific fact: that vaccines are safe and effective.

Former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton summed up the sentiment in a tweet that read:

The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let's protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest

But it’s not only a political talking point. Members of Congress also have made efforts to discuss the pros and cons of vaccines on the national stage. Congress convened a hearing Tuesday titled Examining the U.S. Public Health Response to Seasonal Influenza, where they discussed the current effectiveness of flu vaccinations as well as the need for measles vaccines.

The panel included representatives from the Center for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food and Drug Administration. All four panelists agreed that the risks of vaccines were negligible, but the benefits were tremendous.

“As a physician and a public health expert -- the measles vaccine is very effective and very safe.” said Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “Measles can be very serious and I would hate for people to think everything will be fine and then have the bad outcome.”

Schuchat continued that one of the reasons why public opinion against vaccines has flourished in the U.S. is the country’s currently low disease rates. She says that’s misleading.

“We are so fortunate in this country that our disease rates have been so low that many parents don’t realize the need to vaccinate and that the measles strain is still out there and could come back,” she said. “We know that the immunization is saving lives and money. For every immunization we give we get about $10 dollars back.”

All panelists said they would vaccinate their own children against measles. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases called the decision to vaccinate your child, “a slam dunk.”

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